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Maintain your own lawn. Save money.

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Mark Thomson/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) A woman tosses weeds while preparing a plot in a community garden in Boston, Mass. Taking care of your own lawn can save you money — and energy bills — over the long term.

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While we’re not exactly the type to go out and pay for a professional service to treat and fertilize our lawn for us so that we have a glowing patch of perfect green outside of our home, we do like to have a decent lawn that’s at least alive enough so that our children can run around on it without scraping up their feet and hearing a constant “crunch crunch crunch” sound.

Here are several things we do to maintain a decent yard while still keeping costs low.

Maintain a compost bin. We put our vegetable scraps into a compost bin that sits out by our garden. We turn it regularly (it’s a barrel composter) and stop tossing in new stuff for a few weeks when it’s getting really full. After that, we have a ton of fresh compost. We put a bunch on our garden, but we also sprinkle some of it throughout our lawn.

Use a mulching lawnmower. Our lawnmower takes grass and chops it up into tiny pieces, creating this fine green mulch that gets spread on the lawn as we go along. Typically, this mulch tends to vanish down into the grass within twenty four hours, meaning that we’re not left with a messy yard at all. This finely chopped grass quickly breaks down and provides nutrients for the existing grass.

Taken together, the mulch and the compost provide for a very strong fertilization program for our grass. Our yard isn’t the first to turn green on the block (we’re usually beaten by the people who pay for a service to come to their home), but it does turn wonderfully green shortly thereafter and stays that way.

Plant shade trees. It will take a while for these to make a difference, but when they get tall enough to begin casting shade on your house, your energy bills will thank you. Shade trees make a tremendous difference in the cost of cooling your home during the summer months as they can block a lot of direct sunlight from hitting your house. It’s a good idea to try to plant them in places where they will block the summer sun’s rays.

Plant perennials. If you want flowers around your home, choose perennials instead of annuals. Perennials grow every single year without the need to buy replacement plants each year. They do require care, but so do all plants in your outdoor gardens.

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Our favorite perennial is the tulip, which provides some amazing early spring color to your lawn just as your grass is coming back from the winter months. It provides that burst of living color just when you want to see it the most and, with a bit of care, tulips will come back year after year.

Don’t water your lawn. But won’t it die if I don’t water it?

Yes, it will die if you live in a drought-like situation. Of course, if you live in a drought-like situation, then there are much better uses for water than sprinkling it on your grass.

We’ve had our lawn turn quite yellow due to drought twice since we’ve moved in – once in 2007 and once in 2012. Both times, we responded the same way – we didn’t water it.

Of course, there’s another important part of this water-management equation. Only cut your grass when you’re pretty confident rain is coming in the near future. If it’s not expected to rain for a while, don’t cut your grass. Let it grow tall and provide as much shade and protection for the ground as it can to preserve water.

I generally don’t cut the grass unless the forecast has a chance of rain that’s higher than 60% within the next 48 hours. This simple rule kept our grass green for a very long time during the drought summer of 2012. Although it did eventually turn yellow in places, it stayed green far longer than many lawns on our block (excepting the ones with a sprinkler system).

The only extra water our lawn gets is when our children are playing with a hose-attached sprinkler, in which case we move it around pretty regularly when they’re playing so that the whole lawn gets some water.

Another tip: set your mower blade to the highest setting. This way, the grass remains as tall as possible and preserves water down near the ground. If you cut your grass short, you’re just asking for things to dry out down near the ground.

You can judge for yourself when you want to cut the grass. I generally wait until it looks shaggy to me, then I cut it. During the summer under normal conditions, this will be about every two weeks or so. If it’s raining a lot, it might be weekly. During a dry period, I might not mow for a month and a half.

If you have to water your lawn due to homeowners agreements or the like, water only when there are signs of drought stress. What you’ll want to look for is that the grass is curling at the top. If you see it curling or drooping, it’s time to water it because if you don’t, it will start to brown in the near future.

At that point, check your weather forecast. Is there a high likelihood of rain in the next day or two? If not, it’s time to bust out the hose.

In this situation, use a sprinkler attachment on the end of your hose and set it out in an area. Put a tuna can out there under the sprinkler and let the sprinkler go. Start a timer and check the tuna can regularly. The first time you see the tuna can overflowing, move the sprinkler to a new area and note the timer. Move the sprinkler to a new area after that length of time until the whole lawn is covered.

This will provide a deep soak for your lawn and it should provide all the water your lawn needs for at least a week. Ideally, under non-drought conditions, rain will supplement things enough so that you don’t have to do this much at all.

If you have weeds, start by figuring out your soil pH. If you’re doing everything else described here, this is the first step I’d take toward preventing weeds. Call your local extension office (search for your county and “extension office” in Google) and see if they can help. Many extension offices will test your soil pH for free.

Grass typically grows best with a pH of around 6.5. If you see a lot of dandelions, that means your soil pH is a bit high – usually around 7.5. If your pH is higher than 6.5, you should dust your soil with gardener’s sulfur. If it’s below 6.5, you should dust it with lime. You can get both at a pretty reasonable price – far more than getting on a fertilizer or weed-and-feed cycle, both of which can mean endless expense.

If you have other weeds, just pull them as you see them. If you’re following the other tactics here, they shouldn’t be a major problem.

This is exactly how we care for our own lawn. It’s worked well for us thus far. We’ve managed to maintain a pretty healthy green lawn.


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